A Creative Choice: Using Online Instruction to Help Make College Affordable

My daughter graduated from high school last week. She has her whole life ahead of her—a career, family, and hopefully, college. I worry about college. Even though my husband and I are both more affluent than both of our parents, college for my daughter seems almost out of our reach. Not only has college costs skyrocketed, but the job market for graduating college students looks dismal. Making things worse, this week congress worked on a bill that makes college loans variable, an increase in college debt for sure.

In order to help students still obtain a good college education in this waning economy, colleges look at online courses to reach students where they are. With the age of the internet, it is no longer necessary for students to travel to universities to receive a stellar education. Today, students can minimize debt by staying at home to save on dorm costs and other expenses associated with living away from home.

Some institutions and professors worry that the quality of an online course isn’t as good as a face-to-face course. In a Pew Internet study, only 30 percent of the faculty in higher institutions believe online learning is a legitimate method for learning. (Would that be because they have never taken or taught an online course?) On the other hand, a large number of the chief academic officers, almost 70%, think that online learning is critical to their long term strategy. Under the economic hardships students are facing today, I think this strategy displays merit. An online course, designed well, can be just as engaging and promote student learning as well as a face to face class. In fact, a well-thought out online course is often better. I know this to be a fact because I learned so much more in my master’s program, which was fully online, than in my traditional undergraduate education in a brick and mortar school.

Let’s face it, a course can be awful or wonderful, no matter the modality. When I was enrolled in my undergraduate program, I had a professor who read from the book. That was his lecture, no kidding. I also had a teacher make history so alive that I was never bored. My theory stands that the teacher that read from the book would not (or could not) create a course to motivate me in his online class. And the professor that made history exciting in the classroom would find a way to do that online.

The solution to quality online courses lies in institutional administrators and faculty to commit to quality. To promote quality courses, institutions employ instructional designers to help professors build courses that transfer the engagement and quality of a face-to-face class to online courses. (An instructional designer is an expert in course design and pedagogy.) The designer is trained in many technologies and can suggest a variety of ways make an online course more interesting and engaging for the student. There exists a plethora of tools readily available for online content. There are also systems of looking at course design following a set of standards to promote quality courses. One of these systems is called Quality Matters. Quality Matters was developed to review courses for standards of quality backed by research.

My friends all have bachelor’s degrees, most have masters degrees, and many have, or or working on their doctorate. We often talk about our college debt, regretting the money we spent on private institutions, elite schools, dorm life. We think about how much better off financially we would be if we started at community colleges, lived at home, and attended a good state school. I thought of my daughter as she walked across stage. Her next step in the fall begins at an expensive pastry school, but only for a semester. Then her choices need to be less about a traditional college experience and more about how will she be able to meet her career goals without student loans and other debt. She will need to be smarter, perhaps beginning at a community college, miss out on dorm life, choose a school that will not take most of her paycheck when she graduates, and perhaps take some classes online.

Beginning With the End in Mind

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am reading Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. The habits and ideas he writes about are so simple, but yet profound. Tonight I read more about the 2nd Habit, beginning with the end in mind. In this chapter, Covey encourages his reader to write mission statements and to follow the mission statement every day so that one does not stray from the principles that s/he values. Good advice.

The nugget I read tonight was about company mission statement. He gives an example of a hotel he visited that had impeccable service, down to the last employee. What he found was that the mission statement for the hotel was in the center of the statement, but there were spokes branching from the center that included a mission statement from every single employee. These statements were not written from behind mahogany desks, but from the pens of the employees themselves.

A lesson to learn from this is that people do what they themselves are invested in and believe in.

One of the fundamental problems in organizations, including families, is that people are not committed to the determinations of other people for their lives. They simply don’t buy into them. ….No involvement, no commitment(p. 143).

I couldn’t agree more. I was self-employed for 20 years. And as such, I was completely involved, therefore, completely committed. Now that I am employed by an institution, I had to find my spot, where my involvement was real, and where my presence mattered. Friday, for the first time in a long time, I came home excited to finish what I didn’t have time to finish during the work day. The difference? My involvement was significant. I bought in. It was a very good day.

What did I learn and how does it relate to leadership? Involve the people around you, work with them to write their mission statement.


Studying Leadership Skills

I’m reading the best selling book by Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. It’s been on my bookshelf for years and I  obviously read much of it because I can see faint highlighting in yellow. I don’t think I finished it though. And I certainly didn’t put the ideas to action. This is something I plan to change.

I’m reading Covey’s book because I am studying emotional and social intelligence and I am trying to understand leadership as I look at many different perspectives. As I look around me, I see “leaders” who are not leaders at all. They are managers, at best. I like how Covey puts it:

Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.

You can quickly grasp the difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.

The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.

The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong Jungle!” (p. 100)

I definitely see the difference, now can I make a difference? To help me with this process, I study and take notes on the leadership skills I would like to emulate. For instance, recently I wrote to a very busy person who is the chair of a job search. She took the time to write me back and I know she must get hundreds, if not thousands of applicants. I can see already that she has climbed the tallest tree.

I write down skills I would like to emulate and they are in a notebook for me to review on a regular basis. For the situation above, I wrote: Be kind to those who ask something simple of you. Even if you are busy, your kind response can make their day. Applicants sometimes just want to know where they stand and the only way to find out is to ask you.

A couple of weeks ago a person in the position of leadership went around the table and said something about each person under her authority. I think the idea was to say something kind that would build the person up and make them feel good about themselves. Unfortunately this individual didn’t spend the time to get to know everyone under her authority (around 20 individuals) but the ones she spoke of whom she did spend time with, were very touched. I thought that was a very effective leadership skill. I wrote it down. I will review it and I will remember it.

And I’m just getting started.

Inspiring Work Through Others

I participated in a workshop last week at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio. Presented by the lovely and talented Ellen Burts-Cooper, PhD., we learned strategies on how to get work done by inspiring others.

First we talked about Emotional Intelligence, which is working on ourselves; then we moved on to Social Intelligence, which takes the skills of emotional intelligence and applies it to social situations. Both of these phrases were coined by Daniel Goleman, who researched and wrote books by the same name.

An emotionally intelligent person is self-aware, self-regulated, is skillful in social relationships, has empathy toward others, and is self motivated.

A person with Social Intelligence, is an emotionally intelligent leader and his/her is successful because s/he makes others successful. By becoming involved in the growth of the people around them, a socially intelligent leader will inspire and motivate their co-workers.

Characteristics of an Socially Intelligent Leader

  • An emotional leader has empathy and a desire to motivate others.
  • S/he notices other people’s needs.
  • They are attuned to listen and care about how other people feel.
  • They appreciate the differences of others and understand how the social networks work within their organization.
  • They know how to gain support form the stakeholders around them; they engage people in discussions, listen to their interests.
  • A Socially intelligent leader provides feedback, mentor, and otherwise invest the time necessary to develop others.
  • They are the ones that bring out the best in people, solicit input from the whole team and encourages cooperation.

I think most of us think we have social intelligence but do not. It seems to be human nature to see the best in ourselves and the worst in others. So how do we really know if we have social intelligence or if we are kidding ourselves? Ellen suggested getting feedback and to look at ourselves closely. This works. A couple of weeks ago, I solicited feedback from  a coworker how I handled my job. The question was general but the answer was specific. I trust her and I am working on her suggestions.

After looking at emotional and social intelligence we went on to talk about Dr. Robert Cialdini’s work in the field of influence. Dr. Cialdini states six principles of influence:

  1. reciprocation—if you give, people like to reciprocate
  2. scarcity—people want what is scarce
  3. authority—people are more likely to listen to authoritative figures, use your credentials.
  4. commitment/consistency—people are more likely to do something they have agreed to verbally or in writing. People also value the norm, especially when it reflects our values.
  5. Social validation—people like to know what everyone else is doing before they commit, especially if they are uncertain.
  6. and liking/friendship—people like those who like them and are more likely to respond to people they like.

Of course, we discussed much more in the workshop. Ellen gave a myriad of examples. And we continued our exploration of inspiring others with discussions on the qualities and skills it takes to work through others. I encourage you to take the workshop if you get a chance. For more information, see http://weatherhead.case.edu/professional-development/programs/influencing-at-all-levels

There is also a MOOC by Case Western called Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence. It’s free. I recommend it.

Crème de la Crème: Innate Talent or Effective Practice?

We only have to look to media to observe very talented individuals and teams. Sports, theater, music, even businesses, all have individuals that stand out above the rest as more talented. But what makes one person appear more talented than another? How does one achieve excellence while another does not? Is it talent, environment, genes?
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, seeks to find answers to these questions by traveling to what he calls “talent hotbeds” (Coyle, 2009, p. 12) i.e.,  places where there seems to be an unusually high number of talented individuals. According to Coyle, he expected to find “world-class speed power, and grace” (Coyle, 2009, p. 12). Although he doesn’t say it, I think what he means is that he expected world-class facilities, great coaches, and the finest equipment. Instead he found “chicken-wire Harvards,” which were small, underfunded environments. In these unlikely places were very focused individuals who arduously perfected at their craft by making “small failures” (Coyle, 2009, p. 13) and then correcting them until the skill could be repeated with perfection.

Coyle seems to suggest in his first chapter, “The Sweet Spot,” that talent is not innate; it is created. His premise is that talent is cultivated by making mistakes and correcting them, calling this method “deep practice” (Coyle, 2009, p. 16). According to the author, deep practice is the ability to practice “effectively” (Coyle, 2009, p. 13) which creates superior skills. An example Coyle uses for this hypothesis is that Brazilian soccer players developed crucial soccer skills because the players grew up playing a game called fotsal and thereby developed skills essential for soccer “without even realizing it” (Coyle, 2009, p. 28). Therefore, when the Brazilian soccer players are on the field, they have an advantage. Using Coyle’s reasoning, if one mastered riding a unicycle, riding a bicycle would be a breeze.

In this chapter, Coyle (2009) also conjectures effective practice involves purposeful practice (Coyle, 2009, p. 14). Often effective practice means that the person can practice something without fretting that the mistakes will be a negative experience. He uses an example of a simulator to practice flying before flying an actual plane (Coyle, 2009, p. 24). There are many mistakes a pilot can make while in the air that would be a very negative experience! Therefore, it would be prudent to find a way to practice on the ground using a simulator. Correcting mistakes goes beyond simulators of course; correcting mistakes allows individuals to perfect their craft. According to Coyle:When you’re practicing deeply, the world’s usual rules are suspended.

You use time more efficiently. Your small efforts produce big, lasting results. You have positioned yourself at a place of leverage where you can capture failure and turn it into a skill (Coyle, 2009, p. 19).

Although I agree the the conjecture that paying attention to how we practice will certainly make for better practice and if we practice “deeply” enough it may turn into a skill, Coyle is unable to prove that practice makes talent. Most of us have all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect,” but  the author goes beyond that with the supposition that practice “might be the way to forge the blade itself” (Coyle, 2009, p. 19). This is the argument that the writer is unable to prove. I have practiced many things that I can do much better for the effort, but a talented person beside me doing the same thing will produce better results. For example, I bake and decorate cakes. With years of practice, I can make a cake that is moist and delicious. I can also ice the cake very smooth and even. This takes skill; I have practiced for many years and I am good at it. But what I can’t do is create beautiful flowers to go on the cake. I have practiced making flowers out of icing  for several years and no matter how hard I try, I’m not good at it. (I use fresh flowers.) My eighteen-year-old daughter, on the other hand, can make flowers out of gumpaste icing that are so perfect, they look real. And she practiced, at most, two days. She has talent, it’s innate.  She can “practice deeper” and hone her skill, add a variety of flowers to her repertoire, but the talent is already there.

Innate talent aside, Coye makes a very convincing argument that effective, purposeful practice will make  stronger and better skills. He illustrates this argument by telling the story of Simon Clifford. After watching the Brazilians playing fotsal and being convinced that this is what makes them such good soccer players, Clifford took an underdeveloped group of soccer players, taught them fotsal (effective practice), and went on to foster winning soccer players (Coyle, 2009, p. 28-29).

After reading the first chapter of The Talent Code, I recommend the book. If you are wondering, like Coyle, why some people have the skills to make it to the top, while others do not, then this book will make you ponder, and perhaps practice harder, to learn that skill you always wanted to learn.

Coyle, D. (2009). “The Sweet Spot.” The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. (pp 11-29). The Bantam Dell Publishing Group. Retrieved from:  http://issuu.com/rabberson/docs/the_talent_code_chapter1?mode=embed&backgroundColor=FFFFFF&layout=http%3A%2F%2Fskin.issuu.com%2Fv%2Fcolor%2Flayout.xml

I have become a MOOC Junkie

I had no idea. No idea at all. Six months ago I couldn’t even spell MOOC and now I am totally addicted. (If you don’t know what a MOOC is, see the video and explanation at the end of this post.)

It all started because the college where I work (Cuyahoga Community College, or Tri-C) received a Bill and Melinda Gates grant to develop a MOOC. We built a four-week MOOC in pre-algebra. My math skills are so deficient, I decided to take the course myself. I took the course seriously and increased my math knowledge. After I finished the math MOOC I took a course on Open Educational Resources from SUNY Buffalo. Hmmm….I began looking around.  I stumbled upon a plethora of MOOCs in a variety of interesting subjects. I think I’ve signed up for 10 so far.

I am now taking English Composition offered by Duke University; Gamification offered by the University of Pennsylvania;  Rhetorical Composing offered by The Ohio State University; and next week I begin Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence offered by Case Western Reserve University. These courses are all very professionally developed and I am learning as much in these MOOCs as I have in most of my online courses that I paid to attend! Of course, a MOOC does not offer credit; at most participants receive a certificate of completion. But if the objective is professional development or self development, MOOCs are awesome.

There is a caveat, however. MOOCs have homework and scheduled assignments just like any other online class. Most of them also have additional resources that will enhance in-class learning. It takes commitment to reap the knowledge these classes have to offer. If you are a junkie, like me, you may find you need to drop one you really wanted to take. But the courses you finish will expand your knowledge. And it’s free.


MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course. According to Wikipedia, MOOCs were coined by Dave Cormier. And it just so happens I have a YouTube video from Dave.


Gamification: It just keeps getting more fun.

April 1st (no fooling) I begin a course on Gamification. I’m beginning to think that selling a book is a very good incentive for an instructor to do all the hard work involved in building and facilitating a course for free. The textbook, For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business, is suggested, not required, but I found the book worth the price (under 6 dollars for the Kindle edition) and should prepare me for the class starting April 1.

If you are interested in games and how they can be used in business and education, you can find the course in the coursea catalog. The course is called Gamification and is a University of Pennsylvania course; the instructor is Kevin Werbach, one of the authors of the book. You don’t get college credit for the course but if you successfully complete the course above a threshold score, you will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor. Plus you learn something interesting!